You have seen it before. There is hesitation to engage in the next project. Past experiences have soured the building process. Changes have caused you to overrun your budget. Your project slipped behind schedule. Your construction manager's staff worked exhausting hours and became overwhelmed. Too many changes confused the building team. You saw conflicting information, even from your own staff. Confusion reigned as to what was to be built. You had the unpleasant task of going before the board and begging for more money.

These nightmares might have been brought to you courtesy of a poor communication process. A problem with the flow of information might have been the simple reason behind all of these issues. When it flows well, information is powerful and can lead to efficient use of manpower and dollars. When it flows unchecked, it can lead to a hemorrhaging budget, wasted human resources, and a lost schedule.

A building project is designed based on numerous meetings between the owner's management, users, and staff. Documents are developed based on these meetings. Reviews are done along the way to ensure that the design matches the owner's requirements and the budget. After the completion of these documents, a fixed design, budget, and schedule are expected. But this isn't always the case.

As the project begins, construction questions arise. The subcontractors believe they have a better way to do things. The facilities group was visited by a vendor and now wants that vendor's equipment. The users missed something they saw at another facility when they were invited for a visit. The designers have read about an advance in technology that may have an added benefit for this project.

All of these scenarios can change the project and affect the schedule. None of them is necessarily bad in and of itself-questioning can bring about a better way. And although change does not always bring about improvement, there can be no improvement without change. It must, however, be managed properly.

Generally, the building team involves the owner, the designers, and the construction team. The owner group consists of users, staff, the facilities department, donors, and other stakeholders. The design team includes the architect, the engineers, and other consultants. The construction team has the project manager, engineers, superintendents, and subcontractors.

This is where pyramid power can help guide us. Think of this building team as a set of pyramids (figure). The owner group makes up one of the pyramids. At the apex of that pyramid is the owner's director of construction. Below is the owner's building committee. Below that committee are the facilities group, staff, the user groups, donors, and stakeholders.

The design pyramid has the architect at the top. The architect is responsible for coordinating the engineers and consultants on the design team.

The final pyramid is the construction team. The project manager is at the peak. Next are the project engineers and the superintendent. At the base are the subcontractors.

Information needs to flow from the top of the pyramids to the bottom. This ensures a consistent message throughout each pyramid. When the pyramids work correctly, information flows from one pyramid to the other and travels back up to the apex before crossing to another pyramid.

This flow of communication should start at the beginning of the design phase. The methods of communication should be addressed at a “kickoff” meeting. The construction directives are then set up to flow from the owner pyramid to the construction pyramid. Scope and design direction flow from the owner pyramid to the designer pyramid and then to the construction pyramid. Questions from the field or design suggestions from construction flow from the construction pyramid to the design pyramid and, if necessary, to the owner pyramid.

This process is proven and provides benefits to all members of the building team. For the owner, it allows the communication to be monitored. Directives from user groups or staff members can be reviewed before they are sent to the architect for design or to the construction team for estimating. The owner can evaluate change requests to determine if the idea warrants further evaluation for those outside the owner pyramid. The owner needs to determine: Is a change necessary? Is it affordable? Has it already been discussed? Does the owner want the designers and construction personnel to spend time on the issue in lieu of other duties? Once these questions are answered, the owner group can direct communication to whomever they decide should manage the issue.

Following the pyramid setup, design scope changes flow through the architect. The architect is better equipped to evaluate a change before it goes to the construction manager. The architect needs to determine: Does the change fit into the design? Is it code-compliant? Is it adversely affecting the function or design?

Controlling the communication flow from the construction and design pyramids to the owner group personnel also benefits the owner's team. This helps specifically determine who will get involved and who will be providing input. For example, the owner group should decide if it necessary to involve user groups when the building committee can make the decision.

The design team benefits by receiving clear, concise information from the owner. The lead architect receives a single, consistent message and can then pass the message along to the other members of the design team. It is important to remember that a directive comes from the authority above. The team now has the authority to act on the communication they just received. If it requires additional costs, the person providing the direction can authorize spending. Without using the pyramid process, members of the owner's group who are not authorized to direct changes could make changes without approval. The result could be an unnecessary escalation of time and cost to the project.

Organizing the communication flow also has great benefits for the construction management team. The pyramid structure provides a clear, concise, single source for project information. Any messages get passed down through their own pyramid. Again, those who possess the authority control the ability to act on it. This allows the construction team to make effective use of their time. They avoid pricing numerous changes that might not be considered.

The pyramid communication method has significant benefits to the owner, the architect, and the constructor. The immediate advantage of this process is that it eliminates wasted time and effort for everyone involved. Issues that only affect one group are isolated and do not interfere with staff members and users from the other groups. Simply put, the entire team works more efficiently. When this occurs as described, the pyramids provide the entire building team the ability to concentrate on their specific activities, which will ensure a successful project for all. HD